Editor’s Corner—Verizon’s 5G demo at Indy 500 race track is kind of mind-blowing

Monica Alleven editor's corner

It seems as though every week there’s some announcement about a 5G trial or demonstration. Chances are pretty good that somewhere in the world, a vendor and/or carrier is bragging about achieving some new milestone.

So it was particularly interesting to see Verizon and Ericsson show off their 5G network at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ahead of Sunday’s big race, with four 5G radios set up around the track. The high point? They completely blacked out the windows of a car, mounted a camera on the front of it, gave the professional driver a pair of virtual reality (VR) goggles and had him steer the car on the track based on the video feed coming back to his headset.

Granted, it was a tightly controlled environment and the car wasn’t doing the kinds of speeds they do on race day, but it was said to be going around 60 mph. It was made all the better having Ericsson engineer Bill Goodman in the passenger’s seat, cool as a cucumber even after the blacked-out windows stunt. According to an Ericsson blog, they had more than 180 beams tracking to keep the connection going strong to the radio in the car.   

Essentially, the camera behaved as the eyes of the driver, who was working off the real-time video of the track, explained Sanyogita Shamsunder, director of network planning at Verizon. The point was that he could drive around the track without having direct visibility but working off of a real-time video of the track.

Of course, a lot of things still need to happen before we see 5G supporting autonomous cars on actual roads, but “we wanted to show that the latency is quite low and that you’re able to drive on a track in real time,” she said.

What’s also interesting is that much of the core network Verizon is using in Indianapolis is already virtualized. On the radio, it’s less so, but the operator expects to have more of the system virtualized when it goes commercial. Basically what Verizon is doing in its 11 5G test markets right now is collecting tons of data on how millimeter wave systems perform, and it's also figuring out how to deploy a 5G system economically and get a return on investment.

“The goal is essentially to continue to test and move forward on this millimeter wave 5G technology,” Shamsunder said.

In the future, it’s not hard to imagine how autonomous cars will be equipped with sensors to change the experience for race car fans, whether they’re at the track, at home or elsewhere. Ericsson talks about fans having the ability to watch a race with sunglasses that display the speeds, rpm, tire pressure and other critical information that makes the race interesting. A lot of sporting and other events might become more interesting with more angles and information overlaid.

Not as mind-blowing but still interesting is the connected home Verizon, Ericsson and Intel set up a couple of miles from the Indy car speedway. It’s someone’s actual home, not just some model created for the sake of a demo. A millimeter wave radio was mounted on a pole in the neighborhood and an Intel router sits on a counter powering the home with Wi-Fi and Ethernet, as demonstrated through a Facebook Live event Wednesday posted on Ericsson’s timeline.

They set up various staging areas, like a bedroom showing a VR gaming experience where low latency is also key, and another area where visitors could watch a prerecorded 360-degree video to see action on the race track via a head-mounted display.

As Glenn Laxdal, CTO and head of strategy for Ericsson’s North American region, noted during the Facebook Live event, 2017 is the year of the trial and the test bed. We are sure to see a lot more in the coming months. Let's see who can top the windowless car at the Indy race track. Race on. — Monica